Most people are calling Southwest Airlines Captain Tammie Jo Shults a true hero after the emergency landing of Flight 1380 this week.

However, there's also a minority opinion on social media, including at least some professional pilots, who think she's been given too many accolades.

It's no majority by any means, but it's a noticeable, dissenting, cynical group, offering faint praise at best. Their suggestion, if I can boil it down into a single sentence, is that the rest of us non-pilots are over-impressed because we're ignorant of what goes on every day at 35,000 feet, and thus we don't know what true heroism in the skies really is. Examples:

  • A commenter on Ask the Pilot, writing that the media was incorrectly "hailing the captain as some sort of superhero...as if this was the sort of emergency that isn't planned for and practiced in every simulator check."
  • Another commenter: "Not to be too curmudgeonly, she's not a hero. She just did her job."
  • On Twitter: "No surprise. That's our job. Most pilots will act calmly. We train for that. Not to take any merit, but just doing the job."

There's a lot more out there, but you get the point. Again, not a majority--and in some cases, there's a clear sexist undercurrent. But elsewhere, it sounds more like a kind of resentment, or sadness, especially when it comes from those who claim or appear to be professional pilots.

I was stuck on these comments for a while earlier today, trying to decide how to respond. And after thinking it through, I have only two words to offer to the professionals voicing this kind of sentiment: Thank you.

A very human reaction

No, not thank you for the lack of generosity. Instead, thank you for being the ones who learn and practice and keep tens of thousands of flights in the U.S. alone aloft and safe each day.

Clearly, the American public thinks that Shults, who also happens to have been one of the first female U.S. Navy fighter pilots, and whose deft response led to the survival of all but one passenger aboard, is a hero. I agree--and I also think her co-pilot, identified by Newsweek as Darren Ellisor, apparently a former Air Force pilot, is a hero, too.

They'll be the ones who get the accolades and praise--rightly so, as they were the ones at the controls during this tragedy. But it's also fair to point out that there are thousands of others in the same job, who train and work just as competently, and who, in some cases, have put in similarly heroic performances that were never recognized.

Their envy, if that's what they feel, isn't attractive--but it's also human. And I think I'm eager to give it a pass and offer whatever bit of praise I can, because it reminds me very much of a somewhat similar experience I had years ago--although I played a different role.

It's about the symbolism as much as the heroism

I served on active duty in the U.S. Army JAG Corps after September 11, 2001. I actually spent part of that time stationed in Los Angeles (long story), and later near the Pentagon in Virginia. This meant commuting to work, and just walking around major U.S. cities, wearing a military uniform--during a time of immense patriotism.

I can't tell you how many times people thanked me for my service, offered to pay for coffee or meals, or even called me a hero. I was incredibly embarrassed. I mean, I was working in an office park. I went to happy hours and played pickup soccer. I felt like I'd done nothing to deserve this. It was the soldiers overseas, taking risks and offering themselves for their country, who were the real heroes.

It really bothered me, until I figured it out. These people weren't really thanking me personally. They were thanking my uniform--thanking me as a symbol--and by extension thanking the thousands of soldiers who really were sacrificing, but who those civilians would never come in contact with.

And that made it easy to know what to do. I'd say "You're welcome" on behalf of all those other soldiers. And since part of my job involved prepping soldiers who were about to deploy, I'd make sure to tell them these "thank you for your service" stories--and be sure they knew that people really did appreciate what they were doing, even if they'd never meet them.

We're all in awe, and we all say thanks

That's part of what's going on here, or at least how I hope some of these other pilots will come to see it. Yes, people are amazed at the calm that Shults displayed, as evidenced in the recording of her talking with air traffic control as she and Ellisor landed the plane. Certainly, they're saddened by the death of passenger Jennifer Riordan, and they're aghast at the way the engine looks in photos after the explosion.

But their appreciation is both for Shults personally, and for Ellisor--and for everyone else who flies commercial airlines as a proxy. I'd also throw more people into the mix as well: the flight attendants, the ground crew, the engineers who designed planes that can stay in the air even after an engine explodes.

We're just as susceptible to cynicism as pilots are, and some of us have logged millions of miles in the air. But can't we agree that it's still utterly amazing that we can do this: routinely pack hundreds of people into a pressurized metal tube and transport them all over the country or the world in a matter of hours?

Not only that, but we've figured out a way to do it that, while it's not 100 percent foolproof, is nevertheless the safest statistical way to travel. That's a pretty amazing human achievement.

So to Shults, Ellisor, and every other professional involved in making it happen each day: Sincerely, thanks. Oh, and also--let's be a little nicer to each other in the comments.

Published on: Apr 19, 2018
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